The Age

Food tourists demanding a hands-on experience

Date: 21/08/2010
Words: 706
Source: AGE
          Publication: The Age
Section: News
Page: 14
IT'S a big, rustic-looking farmhouse kitchen and inside an animated chef is teaching eager home cooks how to make ravioli. The scene is reminiscent of the type of tourism thriving under the Tuscan sun, but these classes are conducted closer to home during Victoria's bitter winter months, off a highway at Coldstream's Bella Vedere restaurant.

Inside the kitchen, Anne Vrondou has the pastry for her lemon tart blind baking in the oven and is kneading a sourdough for lunch, as her mother, Marie, works on the bench beside her, swiftly breaking down rabbits with an ease that makes it look as though it was something she learnt on a farm growing up. Chef Gary Cooper is impressed  especially when he learns that Marie Vrondou has never cut or even cooked a rabbit before.

The cooking course, says Anne, is a treat they have been looking forward to for months. Her boyfriend picked it because she loves to cook and her mother loves to garden, both are components of the course.

"Who wants to get their hands dirty?" Cooper asks the pair as he kneads the pasta he'll later teach them to manipulate into ravioli filled with bechemel, broccoli and Persian feta.

Today, food tourism in regional Victoria is very much about people getting their hands dirty. Tourism Victoria's Greg Hywood says the proliferation of cooking schools, food and farm experience themed tourism, particularly in Daylesford, Mornington Peninsula and the King and Yarra valleys, is being fuelled by people wanting to give food more prominence on their holidays.

Mr Hywood says people want to learn how to make food, see where it comes from and learn how take simple methods from the country kitchen back home. "This fits within this notion of improving yourself, which is incredibly powerful for people," Mr Hywood says. "It is a real theme in international tourism, that people want to go a lot deeper in their tourism experience than mere sightseeing."

In various forms, food-themed tourism is popping up across the state, from organic cooking schools and bush-themed gardening in Gippsland to cheese-making courses in Ballarat.

"I think increasingly consumers are hungry for knowledge about food and wine, and no more do they want to sit and look and watch, they really want to . . . get involved," says Natalie O'Brien, head of Melbourne Food and Wine. "People want to go where you can meet the farmer or the producer or go and make some cheese with the cheese-maker and the setting is a very real experience."

Tuscan-style agri-tourismo is getting more popular here. "No longer is it necessary to travel to France or Italy for the gourmet experience of your life," declares the website of a culinary retreat in Mornington Peninsula. It goes on: "Modelled on the live-in participatory cooking schools made so famous in Europe, George's gourmet cooking retreat . . . has been designed to complement Australia's maturing palate."

George's offers classes in different cuisines over three days, but has recently introduced a two-day course for the time-poor demographic.Mostly, owner Peter Schofield says, people who take the courses are serious home cooks or employees whose corporate workplaces have organised the retreat.

At the Pizzini winery in King Valley, Katrina Pizzini says many of her cooking students are people who watch food television and follow recipes but are keen to learn about how things are supposed to feel.

In Koonwarra, the Peaceful Garden Organic Cooking School offers classes that include pasta and breadmaking and others that incorporate food gathering and preserve making. "With the school we wanted to provide a connection that promoted simple, nurturing and nutritious cooking using organic produce and show people that there are still ways of doing it even in time-constrained lives."

Nearby in Tynong at the Peppermint Ridge Farm, Julie Weatherhead offers courses in growing organic vegetables and bush plants, and preparing bush food. Ms Weatherhead's family have lived on the farm for more than 100 years. She and her husband bought eight hectares of the family property more than 20 years ago to create a farm classroom to teach people how to garden, cook and make their homes more sustainable. "We want people to have an experience, one set in a beautiful spot, one where they can taste, learn, see . . ."

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